Why We Can’t Retreat From Anti-Terrorism Tactics We Know Work
According to the latest news from Sweden, a terrorist once again followed advice from al Qaeda and ISIS, and used a large stolen vehicle to plow into crowds of people. This comes after a very similar attack in London, mass shootings in Istanbul and Orlando, and prior to that, an attack that targeted tourists in the city of Nice. The Nice attack followed the same blueprint as the one that just happened in Stockholm. Unfortunately, when we tally up the incidents across Europe, we have to admit that there’s a serious terrorist problem on the continent.
Although Europeans’ chances of dying from a terrorist attack are about the same as being struck by lightning (twice), hard data from a statistical table isn’t going to drive policy, and the people will want their leaders to fix this dire problem. When you’re in the spotlight as a national leader, with images of blood and wreckage on TV being played 24 hours a day across the world and the citizens who voted for you chanting for you to do something as long as it’s not keeping the status quo, you enter very dangerous territory.
The sudden resurgence of right wing populism was built in no small part on very attractive and simple solutions to terrorism. From Bannon and Gorka to LePen and Wilders, the advice from the far right is clear. First, we’ll more or less lock down the borders to refugees from Muslim majority countries, and for other nations, institute policies that let us vet everything from what they post on social media to their finances. Second, we start banning sects which we can say preach violence and keep an eye on mosques, much in the same way the FBI did after 9/11.
The last step is usually in some dispute and more radical members of the right call for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” in which people who don’t meet their view of a proper Westerner are deported or get the message and leave on their own. The more moderate ones seem just fine with certain sects of Islam being banned and quickly slowing immigration from Muslim majority countries to a small trickle of wealthy business tycoons on their way to start new companies along with their large piles of cash.
But the far right’s approach to countering terrorism is a lot like snake oil. It identifies the very real problem that we’re seeing more terrorist activity, and then goes on to offer a cure worse than the disease while neglecting to study a set of policies and cultural issues that are already working on containing threats and reducing radicalization in America. Nearly half of all jihadis are tailed by an informant, and a further quarter are reported by friends, family, and concerned Muslims.
In fact one of the biggest controversies with the now obsolete FBI program intended to monitor mosques for signs of radicalization was informants way too eager to find extremists being reported to the FBI and kicked out of the target communities for their supposedly radical and violent views. This is in no small part because American Muslims are much, much better assimilated into the nation’s fabric than their European counterparts. They enjoy higher standards of living, more rights, and 58% of their neighbors think diversity makes their country better, with a further 33% saying they have no problem with it, meaning their presence doesn’t automatically offend or alarm.
As the world’s melting pot, Americans excel at integration, and this is why immigrants’ children almost always end up speaking English, achieving the same levels of education and income as the native population at least, and embracing American values. I’m not even first generation but can attest that it’s impossible to live in the United States for a long period of time and not sign on to its culture because it’s everywhere you go and it takes an insane amount of effort to stay in some ethnic enclave where you can tune it out.
On top of that, typical Americans make it extremely easy to fit in because a melting pot mentality automatically gives immigrants a seat at the table and the benefit of the doubt, instead of forcing them to keep on proving they’re worthy of being part of the nation for generations before being accepted, as often happens in Europe. What the populist right wants to do is adopt that European model of “othering” immigrants who’ll be already here when they close the borders to their home nations, and that’s exactly what got Europe in trouble today, when you consider who’s behind their terror wave.
It’s at this point that the populists bring up refugees, and there is definitely a serious refugee problem to consider, but that problem is not about terrorism exactly. Aside from two refugees in Germany, those behind the last few years of attacks were actually first generation immigrants whose resentment was weaponized by radical clerics specifically recruiting terrorists.
Disaffected, young, angry Muslims who did not fit in where they were born, with fewer educational and job opportunities, treated like invaders and pariahs in their own home countries, and just unstable enough to want to channel all of the frustration they felt into violence, went off to fight for ISIS, or become lone wolf jihadis that al Qaeda encouraged for years.
Finally they fit in, even if it was with bloodthirsty fundamentalists with a searing hatred of anyone even the slightest bit unlike them, who celebrate violence and revel in barbarism, embracing the terrorist label rather than shying away from it. They may not have been practicing Muslims until joining a terrorist organization, but they found their solace in the terrifying certainty of fundamentalism.
And the saddest part of all this is that the experts who told us to keep our eye on disaffected Muslims in Europe because they would be carrying out a lot of lone wolf style attacks in the coming years have predicted all this for close to a decade now. For them, the proposition to go out and bomb or run over their fellow citizens is to take revenge of on all those sinful Westerners who segregated them and their parents in ethnic ghettos, and blame them for all sorts of evils, real or imagined.
For their American counterparts, the idea of attacking other Americans is killing their friends, neighbors, and co-workers who welcomed their parents with more or less open arms. It takes a special set of circumstances, and maybe even some sort of mental instability to see this as a “reasonable” course of action for a would-be jihadist, which we can see in the statistics regarding who’s actually going to join terrorist groups by country and the reasons they give for their actions.
Out of more than 4,500 Westerners who attempted to join ISIS with various degrees of success, 250 were Americans, a tenth of the combined total from Germany, France, and the Netherlands, which are incidentally, where most of the major terrorist attacks have taken place since the group’s rise. So, in short, when we account for the differences in population, we see that far from failing to integrate Muslims and prevent radicalism, America is doing a pretty damn good job on both fronts.
Meanwhile, European nations where Muslims are treated as a scourge and denied opportunities to integrate, see far, far more radicalization per capita, and those who go on to join ISIS from European nations cite their feelings of hopelessness and lack of opportunity, twisting them into justifications for brutality after years in echo-chambers where current and other would-be jihadis fuel their own anger at life.
Obviously it needs to be said that none of this should be ever taken to mean that jihadis are somehow being forced into violence in Europe. Instead, the issue is about how welcoming the political climate where they live could be to fundamentalists preaching a radical agenda. Keep in mind that they will not simply open a mosque called “Death To Western Servants of Satan,” then pass around a recruitment sheet for ISIS. No, they start out small, trying to point out and play up their alienation from others in their country, along with their lack of opportunities compared to other natives.
Basically, they’re trying to Inception would-be recruits into deciding that an act of violence against the West is their best answer, and point their search for purpose and acceptance towards violent religious fundamentalism and barbaric evil, masquerading as a secret war for the benefit of their families and friends. Our job is to assume that there will be always someone who falls for this grooming and keep in mind that the worse off the radicalizers’ target populations are, the more attractive the pitch they have will sound to those frustrated and waiting to be led.
And this brings us back to the refugee problem. In a way, it’s absolutely true that millions of Muslim refugees pouring into Europe are a serious problem, and part of this problem is their faith. But it’s important to recognize that all these people, unlike the populists will tell you, are not there to rape and pillage. They’re just trying to escape and either taking their chances with the brewing political maelstrom, or choosing to ignore it for the sake of staying hopeful that they’ll catch a lucky break at their destination.
With Europe being very ill equipped to deal with all of its current Muslim populations, adding more is not going to help, and all the noble intentions of helping fellow humans in need have to be backed by an actual ability to effectively integrate them and give them a life in the society they’re entering, which is something Europeans don’t do well with any immigrants, much less with a stigmatized group from alien lands viewed with great suspicion.
Simply taking on more and more refugees without a plan sets up a very bad self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Europe has disaffected groups of Muslims in the midsts of an internal cultural crisis, its citizens keep seeing people from Muslim majority nations as ticking time bombs and treat them accordingly, which adds to the disaffected populations over time, which also increases a terrorist group’s pool of would-be jihadis, which means even more scrutiny and suspicion towards future refugees and immigrants.
It’s a vicious cycle of ratcheting up the pressure which tends to increase the potential for radicalization, and when there’s almost inevitable violence as terrible people are lured by the siren songs of other terrible people taking advantage of the situation, populist pundits will point to it and say “told you they’re programmed for murder!” to justify the next crackdown. It was just like Trump’s reference to some mystery event in Sweden. Now that an attack actually happened, he and his fans are already taking a ghoulish, and not at all subtle victory lap to claim they were just prescient rather than simply misinformed and paranoid.
So instead of locking down borders and cracking down on people who are not the most likely perpetrators of terrorist acts, we need to keep taking all the lessons we learned about successfully integrating immigrants and do a lot more of it. Prioritize skilled migrants, teach unskilled refugees skills in demand if necessary, and make sure they’re constantly being exposed to the national culture, not shuttled off to certain neighborhoods as if they were being quarantined.
Europe needs to learn from the United States how to do integration the right way and follow suit since every piece of available high quality data shows us that giving even the most at risk populations a basic sense of purpose and acceptance significantly lowers their chances of being radicalized or fleeing the country for a life of religious savagery. And as cruel as it may sound, it would be best to take only as many refugees as can be reasonably provided for as not to set thousands of them up for failure and trapped thousands of miles away from home in a place that doesn’t want them or need them.
The refugee crisis is one with no easy solutions, and radical Islam feeding on decades of frustration and failures to integrate immigrant populations can’t be wiped out with simplistic bans or crackdowns. There will always be some people in dire need and there will always be someone filled with enough evil or hate to embrace a religious justification for acting on it. But if we want to make a dent in either of these problems, we need to start viewing them not as simple matters of passing or enforcing the right law, or changing a couple of limits or quotas, but as complex, multi-variable issues we need to tackle with more than one tool at a time and make some tough decisions.
We can’t let simplistic populism and bigotry blind us to data showing that closing the borders won’t cut down on the number of potential terrorists, or that being open and embracing a melting pot mentality is actually working and giving radical clerics fewer and fewer potential targets. Yet we also can’t accept all the refugees who need help without a concrete plan to integrate them, since we know what happens if we fail to have one, and then rely on wishful thinking that everything will just work itself out. It won’t.